October 11, 2013

New book goes into The Room

In my dorm, there is a quarterly tradition in which a group of us sit together and watch Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. We are not the only people to engage in such a tradition. Since its release in 2003, The Room has gained a cult following among film geeks and college students thanks to its bizarre pacing, bad acting, and mind-bogglingly poor quality throughout. Now Greg Sestero, one of the film’s lead actors, has collaborated with author Tom Bissell (Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter) to write The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, a book about the film’s making and its inscrutable maker.

The book follows two plot lines: the first concerns Sestero’s struggle to become an actor in Los Angeles while also working through the first years of his strange and often untenable friendship with Tommy Wiseau, and the second tracks the production of The Room itself. While Sestero is a sympathetic character and the book rarely strays from his point of view, both plotlines focus on the enigmatic Wiseau, who is even more eccentric and hard to understand in real life than his character, Johnny, is in the film.

The Disaster Artist is most valuable as a collection of strange and hilarious anecdotes about Wiseau and the film’s production, neither of which the public has known much about until now. Examples include Wiseau’s choice to give executive producer credits to a senile woman living in Oakland and a dead man, two separate camera crew mutinies, and numerous instances of extravagant wastes of time and money.

The book makes the ambitious choice of attempting a character study of the mysterious Wiseau. Each chapter is accompanied by a quote from either Sunset Boulevard or The Talented Mr. Ripley, drawing comparisons between Wiseau and the characters Norma Desmond and Tom Ripley from each of these works, respectively. The book frequently draws attention to the middle-aged man’s constant need to surround himself with people who are much younger and more attractive than himself. Wiseau even takes Sestero into his L.A. apartment for several years. The book never alludes to or accuses Wiseau of anything truly unseemly, but his obsessive tendency is a source of constant fear that weighs on characters’ minds. In fact, several scenes are a few murders away from being excellent material for a psychological thriller.

Sestero pieces together a plausible story of Wiseau’s weird, twisted experience living out the American Dream: Wiseau escapes across the Iron Curtain to the U.S. in his childhood and eventually starts a business so successful that he could personally fund a movie of his own design. He goes through a true catharsis, at one point friendless, alone, and seemingly on the verge of suicide, but in the end he is vindicated and at peace with his film, his life’s dream accomplished.